Executive Recruiting in a Pandemic
Early in my career at Russell Reynolds I racked up airline miles flying to meet candidates and clients. The airline clubs were easier to access in those days and we flew to meetings, often never exiting the destination airport, and occasionally bumping into our colleagues. We met candidates over coffees, lunches, drinks. I once met a candidate at the Central Park Zoo Cafe because it was a nice day and a convenient location. I loved the adventure of visiting new clients. I thought it would be interesting to publish a coffee table book with photographs of executive offices I visited. AT&T, General Motors, Comcast, Estee Lauder, Disney, Snap … many start-ups. A favorite colleague and I spent a couple of dark, rainy afternoons playing croquet at a slightly tattered version of Downton Abbey in the English countryside after morning meetings with a client company in the travel industry.
Video conferencing enabled us to short-circuit all of this. It is far more efficient but, as we all know, the expense is a loss of personal connection. Our business became more transactional; engagement with clients and candidates more shallow and one-dimensional. The fun of really getting to know a new acquaintance, learning about their business and how they approach work and life, building a trusted relationship over a series of discussions about a business challenge or career move - all of this slowly seeped out of the day to day life of a headhunter.
Though lay-offs are mounting across many sectors, the crisis has magnified the need for one of my clients to recruit a strong, operationally focused leader.
Of course, there is no going back, and I expected Covid-19 social distancing to exacerbate this lack of connectivity but, to my delight, I have found the opposite to be true. With an arguably exceptional lack of foresight I started my own firm two weeks before Covid-19 shut down the NY Metropolitan area. The timing has actually been perfect for me for reasons that don’t merit recounting. Though lay-offs are mounting across many sectors, the crisis has magnified the need for one of my clients to recruit a strong, operationally focused leader. Another client has been challenged to entirely reimagine a business initiative, so we’ve revised a position profile to incorporate a different set of skills.
I am able to think more, and more deeply, about the people I meet and what they may bring to my client’s organizations - the experience, skills and personal qualities, a sense of humor, insightfulness, shared values.
More interesting though has been the experience of zoom meetings with candidates. Normally I have initial briefing calls with potential candidates with whom I’ve connected by email or on Linkedin, but lately I’ve suggested introductions by zoom. In a way, this reverses the model. Instead of spending much of my day describing my client’s need on short calls, and saving up time for in-person meetings with prospective candidates, I now have zoom calls with almost everyone. We work through glitches, both electronic and physical, to discuss searches. Dogs, kids and husbands interrupt. My 20 year old walked into my home office, not seeing that I was on a zoom call, to show me an impressive looking omelet he made. My candidate’s reaction - she wanted to see it - brought a different level of humanity and connection to the conversation. We discuss our circumstances … Are you in the City? How is video-schooling working? One of my clients told me his wife is surprised by how much of his day he spends in meetings. She had thought he spent his days writing. I am able to think more, and more deeply, about the people I meet and what they may bring to my client’s organizations - the experience, skills and personal qualities, a sense of humor, insightfulness, shared values. I find myself thinking that the person I am getting to know on this call is not right for my search but may be helpful to another of my clients whom they would never meet without my introduction. So I connect them. A once-candidate whom I have come to know well over time would benefit from a mentor in his profession and I’m sure I know the perfect person. I connect them. I have the time to ask the not-so-relevant questions I asked when I was learning about business … How did you come up with that idea?! What was the CEO thinking? Wait, you minored in Egyptology? What do you really want to do? I learn about businesses and social trends and leadership, especially leadership, from the people I am privileged to talk with every day. And I apply what I’ve learned in my next search.
I appreciate that these conversations are luxuries, especially in the context of our current circumstances. It’s not ideal to never have in-person meetings in my business. But I enjoy them and think it’s working. I am embracing the role of connector of people in the business community. When I propose a candidate to a client as the right person to help solve the problem I do it with greater conviction. And, above all, I am more confident than ever that all problems can be solved when we engage the right people.